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EPA Science Panel upholds key scientific principles to guide biomass standards

Sasha Stashwick

Posted January 25, 2012

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Last summer, EPA temporarily exempted the carbon emitted from burning biomass from pollution standards under the Clean Air Act and convened a panel of scientific experts to advise it on crafting rules for the treatment of biomass.

Last week, that Science Advisory Board released its long-awaited draft evaluation of EPA’s proposed Accounting Framework for Biogenic CO2 Emissions from Stationary Sources. [Note, this report is not final and meant only as a deliberative draft.] Here’s our first read:

In its report, the SAB determines several scientific principles to guide EPA, which we believe will be critical to biomass regulations going forward.

First, it issues a clear and unequivocal rejection of the idea that biomass can automatically be treated as carbon neutral. As we discuss here, the lifecycle carbon emissions of some forms of biomass are neutral or close to neutral over a reasonable period of time—meaning that they completely balance the production and use of carbon, resulting in zero net emissions. Feedstocks like landfill gas, forest and crop residues that would otherwise be burned, and annual crop residues not needed to preserve soil carbon stocks, have low net emissions within very short periods of time and can reasonably be considered potential low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels like coal. On the other hand, net carbon emissions from harvesting and burning whole trees and other similar forms of biomass will result in as much if not more carbon emissions than burning coal for decades.

The SAB appropriately concludes that:

“Only when bioenergy results in additional carbon being sequestered above and beyond the anticipated baseline (the “business as usual” trajectory) can there be a justification for concluding that such energy use results in little or no increase in carbon emissions.”

What that means is that only biomass that is carefully chosen, grown responsibly, and efficiently converted into energy can reduce carbon pollution and other emissions compared to fossil fuels.

Second, the SAB offers a blunt critique of EPA’s regional approach to assessing the carbon impacts of bioenergy, concluding that it is scientifically unjustified. In its draft Accounting Framework, the EPA proposes to adjust the carbon emissions of large, biomass-burning facilities by a regional “Biomass Adjustment Factor” based on an assessment of forest stocks in the region where the facility is located. This approach, according to the SAB, is a “central weakness of the Framework” and “leads to the nonsensical conclusion that a ton of carbon emitted in one part of the country may be treated differently from a ton of carbon emitted elsewhere.”

We agree.

If applied, this type of regional approach would mean that a power plant burning whole trees from a given region would have zero “net biogenic emissions” as long as total tree harvesting in that region doesn’t exceed annual forest growth. Yet, from the perspective of the atmosphere, eliminating a carbon sink has the same impact as creating an equivalent-sized smokestack. So plants burning biomass cannot be given credit for forest growth and carbon sequestration that would be happening anyway without increasing net carbon emissions to the atmosphere. Not only would this approach create perverse incentives for investors and land-owners, but it ignores the actual ways in which bioenergy producers can affect carbon emissions: by choosing low-carbon feedstocks from lands that are sustainably managed and using efficient conversion technologies to turn that biomass into electricity.

Third, the SAB recommends that EPA apply  points EPA towards a “categorical inclusion” approach for power plants burning whole trees and other long carbon recovery feedstocks. Under such a system, 100% of the carbon emitted at biomass burning facilities would be counted, with the burden of proof resting with power plants to demonstrate any additional carbon sequestration they wish to be credited for. This reaffirms the principle of starting with full carbon accounting for the vast majority of biomass and resists the notion that we should be giving large biomass-burning facilities carbon credit “on spec” for biomass regrowth they claim will happen in the future.

Bottom line?

Asked by EPA, “Is [the draft Framework] scientifically rigorous?”, the SAB’s response could not be clearer:  “The SAB did not find the Framework to be scientifically rigorous.”

As we here at NRDC have done, the SAB calls on EPA to abandon the Framework in favor of an accounting system that would be simpler to implement and could accurately assess the climate impact of burning biomass. It suggests that EPA give credit to facilities burning biomass that falls into short recovery feedstocks—things like agricultural residues, perennial herbaceous crops, mill wood wastes, and other wastes where carbon recovery and “anyway” emissions are within one to a few years—but require that emissions from all other types of biomass be fully counted at the smokestack. Facilities wishing to claim carbon credit for burning biomass would then have to demonstrate that the biomass they’ve sourced has actually resulted in a reduction in carbon emissions to the atmosphere.

The SAB offers two options for doing so: sustainable certification and carbon offsets. On its own, sustainable certification does not tell us about the carbon impacts of any source of biomass. And for its part, crediting carbon for completely unrelated projects meant to offset emissions from the smokestack would only add an additional layer of complexity and uncertainty into the system, given the challenges of ensuring that offset credits represent real, additional, and verifiable carbon sequestration.

However, certification coupled with rigorous carbon sequestration accounting could be used to assess the carbon impacts of specific biomass feedstocks sourced from specific landscapes. Critically, this would mean a system that credits only sequestration above and beyond what would have happened anyway on the landscape from which the facility is sourcing biomass—for example, through management changes that result in greater biomass growth or new tree plantings where trees otherwise would not be growing—and has mechanisms in place to account for emissions leakage to other landscapes, as well as the risk of reversal.

We need a regulatory system that links emitter behavior directly to what’s happening on the landscape, putting in place the necessary market incentives to encourage bioenergy facilities to source low-carbon biomass and burn it efficiently. The SAB’s draft report is correct in concluding that EPA’s Framework fails to offer a scientifically rigorous and workable approach to regulating biogenic carbon. NRDC applauds the SAB’s work to date in reinforcing key scientific principles in biomass carbon accounting and urges it to further elaborate effective approaches for implementing these principles.

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Joshua MartinJan 25 2012 01:04 PM

Thanks for the excellent post on this important issue.

Erich J. KnightJan 26 2012 12:48 PM

Dear Ms Lyutse,
I to agree with SAB, and we need to go further.

All policy incentives should be restructured to Establish Soil Carbon as the Universal Measure of Sustainability for all biofuel systems. To pay farmers, as Australia does, the full value for building soil-C. Curing the illness of externalizing the cost of fossil carbon by sequestering it to attain the highest continuing benefits. The cited ills of of biofuels' Carbon foot print, food security & sustainability issues cascade away with integrated bio refining of carbon, nutrients and energy.

The Paleoclimate Record shows agricultural-geo-engineering is responsible for 2/3rds of our excess greenhouse gases. The unintended consequence, the flowering of our civilization. Our science has now realized these consequences and has developed a more encompassing wisdom. Wise land management, afforestation and the thermal conversion of biomass can build back our soil carbon. Pyrolysis, Gasification and Hydro-Thermal Carbonization are known biofuel technologies, What is new are the concomitant benefits of biochars for Soil Carbon Sequestration; building soil biodiversity & nitrogen efficiency, for in situ remediation of toxic agents, and, as a feed supplement cutting the carbon foot print of livestock. Modern systems are closed-loop with no significant emissions. The general life cycle analysis is: every 1 ton of biomass yields 1/3 ton Biochar equal to 1 ton CO2e, plus biofuels equal to 1MWh exported electricity, so each energy cycle is 1/3 carbon negative. [1] [2] [3]

Beyond Rectifying the Carbon Cycle;
Biochar systems Integrate nutrient management, serving the same healing function for the Nitrogen and Phosphorous Cycles. A 50% reduction of NH3 loss when composting. Ag manure char absorbs phosphorus for nutrient credit income, CHP, Biomass Crop & energy grants and when carbon comes to account, another big credit. The compounding soil benefits; reduced nitrogen loss & soil Nitrous-oxide
emissions and a 17% increased water efficiency are documented in trials across soil types and climates. The production of ammonia and char from biomass and other third generation companies aiming for drop-in fuels, can free agriculture from fossil energy. [4] [5]

The Agricultural Soil Carbon Sequestration Standards are the royal road for the GHG Mitigation; This stakeholder effort with the USDA & EPA, Reviewed by both Congressional Ag Committees, who asked for expansion to ISO status, the goal now is to get the world on the same soil carbon page. [6]

Economic at all Scales;
Local economic stimulus is at all scales of development, from the Global Clean Cook Stove Initiative, to base load manure systems, to industrial biomass power production. Replacing "Three Stone" stoves with biomass stoves, the health effects equal the eradication of Malaria & AIDs combined. Delivering carbon credits to developing countries would further economic stimulus. [7]

The Major Endorsements include:
Dr. Jim Hansen, Dr. James Lovelock,
Nobel laureates; Al Gore and Dr. Mario Molina,
Politicians; Tony Blair, Tony Abbott, Secretaries Salazar & Vilsack,
Environmentalist; Tim Flannery, Bill McKibben, Richard Branson & his Carbon War Room.

The photosynthetic "capture" collectors are up and running all around us, the "storage" sink is in operation just under our feet, conversion reactors are the only infrastructure we need to build out. Carbon, as the center of life, has high value to recapitalize our soils. Yielding nutrient dense foods and Biofuels, Paying Premiums of pollution abatement and toxic remediation and the growing Dividend created by the increasing biomass of a thriving soil community.

Since we have filled the air , filling the seas to full, soil is the only beneficial place left.
Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.

Thank you for your efforts.

See all cited links here;
"Five Minutes with Lisa Jackson et al"

Rachel SmolkerJan 26 2012 02:02 PM

Thanks for the overview- great that EPA is being advised biomass is not categoricallly carbon neutral, and that the hairbrained "regional accounting" scheme was rejected. I find it difficult to image however how any reasonably accurate accounting can be done given so much variation in landscapes and contexts and feedstocks. Frankly I think EPA should be rewarding biomass facilities for protecting forests and ecosystems, restoring biodiversity and regenerating soils, reducing fertilizer use and diminishing trucking emissions. Now that might actually get us moving forward towards really helping to reduce emissions - instead of mucking about in the residues....
PSwho is going to be actually CHECKING on how materials are grown and harvested?

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